Friday, June 03, 2022

vintage miscellany | chicago fieldhouses

Humboldt Park Fieldhouse

One of my newest freelance gigs is writing neighborhood guides for a real estate site, which includes overviews of Chicago neighborhood highlights in general and specific info about parks and schools, something understandably important to homebuyers.  As such, it led me into investigating corners of the city I might not otherwise –like Humboldt Park and the Ashburn neighborhood. As such, I’ve become singularly obsessed with Chicago Park District fieldhouses of late (Humboldt has a huge and rather impressive one.).  The park nearest my apartment, of course, has a similarly lovely one–though technically more of a mansion (actually two of them) rather than a fieldhouse proper.

Chicago is definitely a city of parks. From small pocket parks in unexpected locations to beautiful lakefront expanses of green space, the Chicago Park District oversees just over 600 different parks– from the tiniest playlots tucked along residential streets to the huge expanses of  Lincoln and Grant Parks. Much of this emerald wonderland is owed to the great Daniel Burnham, whose plan for the city of Chicago after the Great Chicago Fire encountered a nearly blank slate of urban planning and design.  It is from Daniel Burnham we get our open and expansive lakefront, but also that we get another, very Chicago structure--the park fieldhouse. 

McKinley Park Lagoon and Fieldhouse

In numerous park locales, you will find them, from the smallest simple utilitarian structures housing restrooms and drinking fountains to sprawling architectural wonders featuring luxe event spaces, a gymnasium, meeting rooms, and auditoriums.  There are over 240 fieldhouses in the Chicago city limits, many historic structures designed by some of the most famous architects of the early century like Burnham, Beaux-Arts style architect Edward Bennett, and Chicago’s own Clarence Hatzfield (who was famous for Praire Style and Arts & Crafts style homes.) 

Around the turn of the 20th century, what was then known as the Chicago South Parks Commission created a vast new system of parks--the goal being that all children, particularly children in the South side neighborhoods of tenement apartments and working-class homes, be within easy walking distance of at least one open green space for recreation and relaxation. .  The fieldhouses were hatched as permanent structures that would allow the park to be useful all four seasons of the year–even during Chicago’s long winters.  While the Industrial Age had resulted in population booms in the city and the rise of urban sprawl, city planner Daniel Burnham, inspired by the 1893 Columbian Exposition, imagined a system of beautiful parks with public facilities meeting not only recreational needs like workout rooms and indoor courts, but also as a place for social service programs like hygiene, wellness, and educational programs. Many field houses would go on to contain not just gymnasiums and showers, but also classrooms and lunchrooms for the distribution of meals. 

Interior, Sherman Park Fieldhouse

The first park of Burnham’s Southside initiative was the sprawling McKinley Park in the neighborhood surrounding the Chicago Stockyards. which featured a large lagoon and sizeable fieldhouse. The south side parks grew in popularity and flourished throughout the city. Burnham would later bring in landscape architecture Frederic Law Olmstead to design more parks and Beaux-Arts architect Edward Bennet to design fieldhouses,, Through the early half of the century, the fieldhouse had proliferated throughout the entire city, with many northside fieldhouses designed by Clarence Hatfield in Frank Lloyd Wrights famous Prairie Style.  

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